April 2, 2011
The Sea Hawk – U.S., 1940
“…and it is, it is a glorious thing to be a pirate king.”
-Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance
There are two ways to view Michael Curtiz’s 1940 swashbuckler The Sea Hawk. Viewed literally, it’s the story of a sea captain named Geoffrey Thorpe, who is in the habit of robbing and sinking Spanish ships. Viewed metaphorically, it’s the story of a lone man who has the foresight to realize the danger his country is in at a time when his leaders elect to employ a policy of appeasement instead of building up its defenses. In the film, the country with expansionist aspirations is Spain, but it could easily be Nazi Germany, which by the time the film opened had already begun its aerial bombardment of England.
The film is set in 1585, and the era of colonization is in full swing. This is significant because this era is one of the few in which a power-hunger, militarily-strong ruler could have such goals and not be mocked. In fact, the film opens with a scene in which the king of Spain both proclaims that the New World is his and reveals his vision of a world with just one name: Spain. It’s a pretty lofty goal, and in the king’s eyes, he must take England for it to become a reality. Therefore, the king does two things: He commissions the building of a massive naval force, and he sends Ambassador Don Jose Alvarez de Cordoba (Claude Rains) to Britain to allay any suspicion that his first move may cause. The message his ambassador brings – the updated fleet is for defensive purposes only. Unfortunately for him, the ambassador’s ship is met at sea by the Albatross, captained by Geoffrey Thorpe (Errol Flynn). What follows is one of those grand fight scenes that films of this kind are known for, replete with amazing displays of fencing techniques and flying fisticuffs. Adding to the pleasure of the scene is the playing of one of the jazziest signals of surrender you’re likely to hear.
One of the fun things about this part of The Sea Hawk is the way it contrasts the two opposing naval forces. We see the Spanish force standing on the deck of the ship in full Conquistador attire, not a smile to be seen on any of their faces. In addition, the ambassador and the ship’s captain hope to avoid a conflict. Contrast them with the men of the Albatross. They’re jovial, confident, and eager for a fight. They’re practically giddy when the Spanish ship doesn’t surrender right away, and one crew member is so excited that he swings across to the other ship before every one else and almost gets himself killed. And listen to the film’s musical score. The introduction of the Albatross is accompanied by music so grand and upbeat that you know instantly that this is a ship of heroes. You get the sense that the crew could break out into song at any moment. There’s also the unintended pleasure of hearing Capt. Thorpe repeatedly refer to one of his crew as “Mr. Scott” and of this character replying, “Aye aye captain.” A little bit of foreshadowing there.
A film of this kind would be incomplete without a love story, and the one in the The Sea Hawk is both humorous and sweet. One of the passengers on the Spanish ship is the ambassador’s niece, Maria (Brenda Marshall), and despite her dislike of pirates, she soon finds herself liking a particular pirate captain, especially after he returns her entire collection of jewelry to her. Soon they’re sharing a tender moment in the queen’s flower garden, and he’s proclaiming her his “lady of the flores.” Maria is one of the film’s most interesting characters, as she is as much English as she is Spanish, and as such she is greatly conflicted about what is happening around her. Marshall plays these moments perfectly, and her reaction to seeing the Albatross sailing away before she could get there is priceless.
Also interesting is Capt. Thorpe’s Achilles’ Heel – speaking to the opposite sex. As his crew so elegantly puts it, Thorpe becomes tongue-tied around them. In fact, the only woman he seems to have a way with words around in the queen herself, and he is so skilled at it that the queen often has to cover her face with a fan to hide the extent of her amusement. Around Maria though, Capt. Thorpe can scarcely get the word hello out.
As fun as parts of the first half of the film are, it should be noted that the film is rather serious in tone. The possibility of war is real, and the subject is approached sincerely. While there are many moments in which the queen is engaged in comic banter with Thorpe, there are more moments when the two of them are discussing military strategy, the need for an improved navy, and Spain’s true intentions. During one such conversation, Thorpe suggests a secret mission that he hopes will cripple Spain’s navy and provide England with the financial resources it needs to shore up its defenses. The plan is bold, and the queen gives him her tacit approval. To say it goes terribly wrong would be an understatement. Eventually the actions of the Sea Hawks are used to justify Spain’s discontent, and Queen Elizabeth I (Flora Robson) is told that she must ground the Sea Hawks or face war. She chooses the former, which is just as the king of Spain was hoping she would do.
The Sea Hawk provides an excellent blend of political drama, romance, and comedy. The stakes are real for these characters, and we sympathize with the queen as she makes what we know are ultimately the wrong decisions. However, she makes them for all the right reasons. I also liked the way Maria’s love for Thorpe came across. There aren’t many scenes leading up to their budding love, but Maria’s actions and emotional reactions later in the film make up for this. The film is unapologetically on the side of England, and character after character extorts the superiority and quality of everything from England’s wines to its treatment of prisoners. I’m sure that message was greatly appreciated in 1940. The Sea Hawk remains a timely, fun film. (on DVD)